Project reveals need for more research into soil fungi

Dunstan High School pupils and staff, University of Otago botany department staff and students,...
Dunstan High School pupils and staff, University of Otago botany department staff and students, and Haehaeata Natural Heritage Trust volunteers take a break from sample gathering at the native plant-soil fungi trial site on Waikeri Downs Station, near Alexandra. A citizen science project using soil samples from the station to investigate native plant-soil fungi symbiosis is almost complete. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The biggest finding from a citizens' science study being done in Central Otago might be how much more work on the research topic needs to be done, one of the scientists involved in the project says.

The study, into native plant-soil fungi symbiosis, is a collaborative one between two Central Otago native plant trusts - the Haehaeata Natural Heritage Trust, in Clyde, and Mokihi Trust in Cromwell - and the University of Otago's botany department. Some Dunstan High School pupils have also volunteered for the project.

The project has been funded by $20,000 from the Otago Participatory Science Platform, which is in turn funded by the Government's Curious Minds (Science into Action) programme.

Haehaeata trustee Bill Nagle described the study as potentially "ground-breaking'' and hoped it would show how to aid the establishment and survival of native plantings, by providing information about the soil fungi associated with native plant root systems.

Soil fungi could give plants a competitive advantage in harsh conditions by improving water and mineral uptake, Mr Nagle said.

"There is definite evidence from other areas in New Zealand that beneficial fungi in the soil attach to the plant roots, and they can double or quadruple the size of the root system, which makes it easier for the plants to survive.''

Almost 40 volunteers and stakeholders attended a presentation in Alexandra on Friday about the study and viewed presentations on completed soil analysis and vegetation surveys and the molecular work done so far.

The study has involved soil samples being taken from Waikeri Downs Station, near Clyde, and then used for standard soil analysis and genetic analysis. The samples have been sent to the Otago Genomics Facility at the University of Otago for DNA extraction and sequencing, which will be overseen by Dr David Orlovich, of the botany department.

Dr Orlovich said the DNA results should be available in about a month.

But DNA results always presented "a can of worms''. It was not known what this study's results would show, but "it's going to be eye-opening, no matter what'', he said.

Dr Cathy Rufaut, of the university's geology department, said the Central Otago study was a "big collaborative effort'', but the pilot study may prompt more questions.

"I suspect one of the conclusions of this may be that we should have done more sampling.''

It was remarkable how long studies needed to be done before results could translate into practical interventions, but the research was "a complex process that we all have to keep chipping away at'', she said.


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